HILLYARD: An open letter to the Board of Visitors

The University should have stricter wage requirements of its contractors

During the Board of Visitor’s recent meeting at our university, concerned students as well as members of the Living Wage campaign met with the Board immediately following their lunch break. The discussion was fruitful, but nothing was more surprising to us than the fact that several members appeared to be relatively ignorant of employment policies at the University and did not know that it has continually failed to audit its contractors. This information seemed to be surprising to some of the Board members as well.

Though it may not seem obvious to the casual observer, not everyone who works at the University actually works for the University. But the effects of these employment policies are even less readily discerned. Through contractors such as Aramark, the University outsources many positions, especially lower wage ones. This means that they are subject to a variety of different rules and regulations and that contractors can pay as little as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and are not obligated to provide benefits. However, the University, citing dubious legal reasoning, has also claimed that it is unable to stipulate contractor pay or parity.

While staff members employed directly by the University are paid a base wage of $11.53 an hour for their work — still less than the $13 plus benefits necessary to make ends meet in Charlottesville — the compensation of their co-workers remains undisclosed to the University. For years, the University has neglected to audit Aramark and its other contractors for this crucial information; as Board of Visitors member John Griffin so correctly asserted when we met him, the workers in question “could get the minimum wage, and we wouldn’t know about it.” In other words: two individuals working side by side, performing the exact same tasks each day, may be receiving dramatically different compensation for their time. We urge the Board to push for transparency, especially as a new dining contract is negotiated this summer.

Fortunately, there is already a provision in all the current contracts which allows the University to do what it has so far avoided. By doing so, the University would not only move towards a more responsible fiscal policy by ensuring that its money is being spent in an efficient manner, but also reveal the truth of its assertion that Aramark and its other contractors pay fair wages. This might indeed reduce the competitive advantage of contractors at the University, but only because the University has not done so before. A more consistent policy of continual auditing, as required by the contracts themselves, would ensure that all companies and potential contractors take those potential effects into account when submitting bids for the University to consider. By their own admission, the University considers a variety of factors besides cost (such as the quality of service) when choosing contractors. Transparency should be added to this list, especially given the sometimes reprehensible labor practices of its contractors (especially Aramark) in other locations.

As an example, one investigation of Aramark’s wage practices in Baltimore “turned up hundreds of violations” of the city’s living wage and overtime ordinances. Clearly, even laws designed to force Aramark to pay its workers enough to live on were insufficient without accompanying transparency. Aramark has tried to reassure us that it has cleaned up its act (and also its food, but that’s another story), but why should anyone trust them? Trust requires some degree of evidence. Since the University refuses to gather any evidence that demonstrates that Aramark has made good on its promises, why should a company that has in the past flagrantly demonstrated its own untrustworthiness be included in our community of trust? Furthermore, the University is not merely a community of trust, but a caring community. Can those of us at this University truthfully say that we care about the most vulnerable members of our community while simultaneously refusing to find out what they are actually paid?

When we spoke with her at the BOV meeting, Susan Carkeek, Vice President and Chief Human Resource Officer, stated quite clearly that she trusts Aramark to pay a fair wage. What we want to know is: Do you?

C.J. Hillyard is a member of Workers and Students United for a Living Wage.

Published April 4, 2014 in Opinion

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